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Flash Review 2, 9-27: Celebrating the Margins
"Artists in Exile" Brings Legacy & Future of Bay Dance to the Fore

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2000 Christine Chen

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Roxie Theater, Mission District, San Francisco. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area earlier this month because I was lured by an intangible energy and essence that I sensed when I visited last spring. Specifically, I was deeply inspired when I witnessed members of the community (yes, the actual community, not just the insular dance crowd) affected by and involved with the dance world's activities: environmentalists and labor unions rallied behind Jo Kreiter's "Copra Dock Dances"; children and adults stood in awe as Project Bandaloop turned their world around by dancing on the side of a building at a street festival; and audiences danced and bounced in their seats, ignited by the drummers and dancers in "Extravadance," Sara Shelton Mann's long-awaited return after her Contraband days.

To my dismay, the scene that I returned to this fall was depressing, and my future as an artist in this city looked dismal. With the closing of performance and rehearsal spaces (Dance Mission and Dancers Group being the two most recent casualties), the arts seemed on the verge of being debilitated by the booming economy which has driven rent prices up -- rendering them unaffordable for artists. (This has indeed affected all artists: last weekend, local music bands took to the streets, playing on rooftops and sidewalks throughout the city to protest evictions and the dwindling of rehearsal spaces.) I went to the Roxie Monday to see the documentary "Artists in Exile: A Story of Modern Dance in San Francisco," hoping to be re-inspired, but fearing either an overly politicized agit-prop blame game on the space crisis or a self-serving documentary filled with in-jokes and references for which I, as a newcomer to the scene, would feel left out. My fears were allayed, and my greatest hopes were exceeded, for the producer/director team of Austin Forbord and Shelly Trott treated me to 84 minutes of pure inspiration and rejuvenation.

Forbord and Trott in "Exile" poetically and intelligently weave together a tale about the history of S.F. Bay Area dance artists with well-chosen footage from performances and rehearsals and with captivating interviews that humorously capture these artists' varied personalities. The clips, arranged to chronologically document the S.F. legacy beginning with Anna Halprin, are compelling and well edited (though I wanted to see more!). Memorable images include: Merce Cunningham, never more dynamic or supple, improvising in Halprin's backyard; Mangrove and Tumbleweed's early use of Contact with context; Dance Brigade's in-your-face political tactics; Joe Goode's "29 Effeminate Gestures"; rambunctious dancers in urban public arenas like airport hangars and city streets; ethereal presences on the beach and (Project Bandaloop) on the face of Yosemite Falls; and Contraband's aggressive athletes Contact jamming with moving cars. Most of the time I sat in awe of the raw physicality and urgency of the work, surprised that video could elicit such a visceral response. The movement is ferocious, potent, passionate, important, impractical, balls-out/tits-out, urban, soft, powerful, sexual, wild, political, spontaneous, vital, compelling, juicy, jugular, ridiculous, and spectacular. The interviews, too, speak volumes about the SF artists. Conversing candidly, intellectually, passionately, flippantly, reverently and irreverently all at once, the interviewees speak from respectively fitting site-specific locations -- inside, outside, with props, and on ropes.

Throughout the chronicle, several themes emerge: The NYC/SF dichotomy and the poignant (and timely) questions and dilemmas facing SF artists: Why have SF artists been ignored by critics/historians/national presenters/funders? How has this affected the art and the people who have chosen to live and work here? What potential (or problematic?) role might critics play in this city? What next?

If you are from New York you probably have never heard of the dancers or groups whose names I have been throwing around, but let me assure you that Contraband is more legendary and revered in this city than Twyla is in New York. This is precisely the point of the documentary: S.F. artists have been exiled from the center of the dance world (NYC), and the influences S.F. artists have had on the dance community have been largely ignored and unrecognized. Anna Halprin influenced Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Simone Forti, yet they are credited as the forerunners of the postmodern movement. Terry Sengraff introduced gymnastics into her movement vocabulary and experimented in motivity and aerial elements long before Elizabeth Streb put a trampoline on the stage. The discussion goes on -- New York represents fame, prestige, recognition, funding, critical acclaim, and refined skills while San Francisco represents a place to find oneself, to experiment and experience, to redefine and reinvent, to toil in anonymity, to transcend.

Many of the artists interviewed in this documentary look to critics to bring S.F. out of invisibility. However, herein lies the Catch 22 of the S.F. critical dilemma: artists rely on critical reviews to gain national exposure and funding, to have a written testament and record of their work, and to be canonized in dance history and discourse, yet the very absence of this pressure to produce and the reality of S.F.'s marginalization have driven the spirit and the freedom in S.F. dance.

I think, and I borrow heavily from post-colonial discourse in this, that S.F. critics need to find a new way of viewing and reviewing Bay Area work. Our artists are not playing by New York rules, so why should we as critics use these rules to evaluate the work that is being made and produced out here? If S.F. artists are frustrated with both the lack of coverage and the predominantly negative coverage (from critics expecting something else, perhaps a New York aesthetic) they have received, maybe it is our responsibility to develop, invent and germinate a new critical language: a dialogue, focus and set of values unique to the San Francisco Bay Area. With this rhetoric we can give our artists the recognition and feedback they want and deserve without paralyzing their enterprising and spontaneous spirit.

In any case, I left the theater feeling uplifted -- for witnessing this history filled me with faith and confidence that the arts community would use the current space crisis as fuel for the next urgent dance movement. Sure enough, as I exited the theater I was handed a flyer for a resistance rally at City Hall. The postcard, handed to me with the simple and gentle request, "Please come," reads, "Rally & Laugh, Drum & Dance; For life, for love, for art, for fun; Taiko/Ballet/Samba/Mariachi/Hip-Hop/Modern/Contact & Clowns/Jugglers on Stilts, Salsa in Speakers, Players and Singers; 'if we can't dance we'll make a revolution'; On Wednesday, October 4 @ 10 a.m. we will propose to the City Finance Committee specific solutions for the arts & non-profit crisis in San Francisco." This is precisely the energy and the scene the film depicts: dancers uniting and reacting to environmental realities (physical and political) and pressing issues with equal urgency and immediacy in their bodies. The gender stories have been told, AIDS testimonies given, sexuality stories tested, autobiographies politicized, and relationships dissected. San Francisco needs a new stomping ground. While leaving others to refine these (worthy) subjects in their dances, the politically relevant SF artists are reacting from the gut and are creating work in response to what needs to be reacted to right now. This is the heart and soul of San Francisco and this, I am reminded, is why I came here.

"Artists in Exile" concluded its current San Francisco run last night at the Roxie.

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